NEW HAMPTON, IOWA — An outsider who wandered into their 7 a.m. practice might be forgiven for momentarily mistaking these 30 singing teenagers for a chorus of angels. Their faces shine so brightly and their voices blend so sweetly that at least one visitor is fighting tears as he listens.
Yet the New Hampton High School swing-choir members aren't offering a heavenly hosanna. Instead, they're leaning into Elton John's "Your Song." Scenes like this have always been common here, unlike in much of the rest of the United States.
Arts education is on the upswing in many parts of the country. Studies showing links between facility in the arts and other types of learning are being taken seriously.
But on the plains of rural Iowa, it's not a question of bringing back music education: It simply never went anywhere.
When school districts across the country began eliminating music programs as "frills" in the 1970s and '80s, Iowa schools for the most part didn't budge.
"We've had to make budget cuts in recent years as everyone has," says New Hampton superintendent Bob Longmuir. When it comes to music, though, "no one even thought of touching the budget."
For almost two decades, New York City had virtually no arts education, and until recently in Los Angeles schools there was 1 specialty arts teacher, including music teachers, per 4,700 pupils.
But in New Hampton (pop. 3,940) - where cornfields lap at the edges of town and two blocks constitute the business district - five full-time music teachers engage 1,300 kids at a consolidated school. Second-graders learn tone color, third-graders are introduced to Dvorak - and that's pretty much the way it's always been.
"Music is a high priority for our school districts," says Gaylord Tryon, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. In most of the state's public schools, it's a required part of the curriculum up through eighth grade. Mr. Tryon says that the interest in music is fed partly by tradition. Parents care about music education "because they had it in school, too."
But others say it runs deeper than that. They note the central role that church choirs play in community life in the state. Still others counter that the strength of music in Iowa schools is fueled by the same competitive urge that fosters a love of school sports. State-level music competitions are followed by many Iowans and are widely covered by the local media.
"[Music] has just always been a big deal around here," says Virginia Bennett, head of music education at Drake University in Des Moines, and past president of the Iowa Music Educators Association. She says the state has earned respect among music educators nationwide. "When I go to national conferences, people come up to shake my hand and say, 'Oh, you're from Iowa.' "
And unlike in some other areas, music education in Iowa is not principally viewed as a means to boost test scores or impress colleges.
In rural New Hampton, where kids are bused in from five surrounding towns, about 60 percent of the population works in the agricultural sector. Only 40 percent of his students are likely to go on to four-year colleges, estimates Superintendent Longmuir (even though - as in most Iowa districts - New Hampton kids generally surpass the national average on standardized tests).
Close to half of the 480 students at the high school elect to participate in at least one of four school bands and five choirs. A number of students perform in several groups, which means coming to school an hour early to practice.
Members of the swing choir seem surprised when asked for a reason for their involvement with music. "I enjoy it," says 10th-grader Maggie Angell, who sings in the choir, plays alto sax, and participates in the school's marching, jazz, Dixieland, and concert bands. "It gives me something to do that I'm proud of."
"We've been in music all our lives," add classmates Monica Reicks and Rachael Meyer, who also sing in the choir and play in the jazz band. "My brothers all did it," says sophomore Nolan Haskovec, when asked why he gets up an hour early three mornings a week for choir practice.
In the town's elementary school, music teacher Jean Swenson explains that while she received a strong music education growing up in another small Iowa town, she never actually liked music class because "we were all just sitting in a row singing out of a book."
There's no danger of that in Mrs. Swenson's classes. Her third-graders sit still for a while, clapping out the rhythms to a series of notes, but soon they're up and moving. As a Halloween treat, Swenson plays "Do the Igor," asking the kids to listen to music and then create a stiff-limbed dance suitable for Dr. Frankenstein's assistant. She demonstrates for them, twitching one shoulder nervously in time to the music, and soon the class is on its feet, jerking around the floor.
When the New Hampton schools offer a concert or other musical performance, the entire town is likely to turn out. That's typical of small-town Iowa, Tryon says. "Music brings people to the school," he says. "It's a natural connection with the community."
It's also something to do. Outside of the schools, "We are in a cultural wasteland," laments Swenson. The nearest symphony is in Waterloo (45 miles away), staffed largely by amateur musicians. In addition, a strong music program provides an outlet - and a possible career path - for the town's sometimes restless teens.
"There isn't even a movie theater here," complains Ann Swenson, Jean's teenage daughter, and a swing choir member. Ann's dream: to move to New York and become a professional singer.
If that doesn't pan out, she says there's always family tradition to fall back on: "I might become a music teacher."
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